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Kristen Lamb

Author, Blogger, Social Media Jedi

Kristen Lamb — Photo

Posts Categorized: Character

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

Which is more important? Plot or character? Anyone currently doing NaNoWriMo is all, “WORDS! ONLY WORDS MATTER NOW! Get off my case, Blogger Chick. I’ll figure out plot and character later.”

*awkward silence*

To write great fiction, we need both. Plot and characters work together. One arc drives the other much like one cog serves to turn another, thus generating momentum in the overall engine we call “STORY.”

If we goof up plot? Readers/Audiences get confused or call FOUL. Watch the movie Ouija for what I am talking about *shakes head*.

Goof up characters? No one cares about the plot.

New writers are particularly vulnerable to messing up characters. We drift too far to one end of the spectrum or the other—Super-Duper-Perfect versus Too Dumb to Live—and this can make a story fizzle because there is no way to create true dramatic tension.

This leaves us (the frustrated author) to manufacture conflict and what we end up with is drama’s inbred cousin melodrama. 

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

If characters are too perfect, too goody-goody and too well-adjusted? If they always make noble, good and professional decisions? Snooze fest.

Again. Bad decisions make great fiction.

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more booksOf course, the other side of that is what I call The Gilligan Effect. Yes, I am dating myself here and I apologize if I upset any DIE-HARD Gilligan’s Island fans, but I remember being a kid and this show nearly giving me an aneurism (being the highly logical child I was).

After the third time Gilligan botched up the escape off the island? Kristen would have gone Lord of the Flies and Piggy Gilligan would have mysteriously gone “missing.”

I also recall how the stranded party could make everything out of coconuts except a freaking BOAT, and the only reason I kept watching was because it was better than being locked outside to play in heat that shifted asphalt to a plasma state.

Yay, Texas summers!

Yet, I’ve read books with characters that make Gilligan look like a rocket scientist…then been compelled to hurl the book across the room.

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books
This is me after reading certain books *stabbing self*

Flawed vs. Too Dumb to Live

Today we are going to talk about how we can make characters flawed without crossing over into TDTL (Too Dumb To Live) Territory. This commercial never gets old *giggles*

Let’s hide behind the CHAINSAWS!!!! *clutches sides*. Or this one about gals tripping too many times in horror movies. BWA HA HA HA HA HA!

Okay, I’m back *giggles*.

Great stories are filled with characters making bad decisions, and when this is done well, we often don’t really notice it beyond the winding tension in our stomach, the clenching that can only be remedied by pressing forward and seeing if it works out okay.

When characters are properly flawed, the audience remains captured in the fictive dream.

When we (the writer) goof up? The fictive dream is shattered. The audience is no longer part of the world because they’re too busy fuming that anyone could be that stupid. They also now cease to care about the character because, like Gilligan? They kind of want said TDTL character to die.

If this is our protagonist? Extra bad. Our protagonist should make mistakes, just not ones so egregious the reader stops rooting for him/her.

Bad Decisions Birthed from The Flaw

When we create a protagonist, we should remember that all strengths have a complimentary weakness. If a character has never been tested by fire, the protagonist is blind to the weakness.

For instance, great leaders can be control freaks. Loyal people can be overly naive. Compassionate people can be unrealistic. Y’all get the idea.

This dual nature of human strength paired with fallibility is why plot is just as critical.

Plot as Crucible

The plot is the crucible that tests the mettle and reveals and fires out the flaw. The strength ultimately will have to be stronger than the weakness because this is how the protagonist will grow to become a hero by story’s end.

A great example of this is one of my favorite movies, The EdgeAnthony Hopkins plays billionaire Charles Morse. Charles is extremely successful and very much in his own head. Though he’s a genius, he lives the sheltered existence of the uber-wealthy.

What happens when all that “head-knowledge” is what he needs to survive a plane crash in the unforgiving wilderness?

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

When the plane crashes and he and the other two survivors make it to shore, Morse does the right thing. He knows they need to get dry before they all die from hypothermia. He also realizes Stephen, the photographer, is in full panic.

What is the intelligent thing to do? Put the photographer to work doing something fruitful to take his mind off his fear.

Bright (Bad) Idea Fairy

The problem, however, is Morse assumes the photographer has the same knowledge-base and doesn’t take time to show Stephen how to use a knife properly and the man is badly injured as a result. Now we’ve already had a problem (plane crash) and now we have a complication (bad injury) and then it gets worse.

Morse, again, being an in-his-own-head-guy and unaccustomed to having to communicate WHY he wants certain things done, tells Robert Green to bury the blood-soaked fabric.

Green is jealous of Morse and rebellious and instead of following instructions and burying the material? He hangs the blood-soaked rags from a tree where an incoming storm whips up the scent of a newly opened All You Can Eat Buffet.

Soon, the men are being hunted by an apex predator with the munchies for humans.

***Side note here. Look at the genius in the choice of character names. Morse, a cryptic person who must unravel the “code” of his situation and realize the bear is actually the (MUCH) lesser threat. Green, the man who envies to such a degree it drives him to plot a murder. Stephen is the first to die. “Stephen” was also the first Christian martyr, the first innocent to die for the greater cause—salvation.

#DeepThoughts

Back to FLAWS

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more booksBut all of this was birthed from a myriad of flaws. Morse failing to communicate and assuming his comrades are operating with the same head knowledge (because he’s never had to use this type of information in a real-world way).

As a billionaire, Morse has never been required to explain himself before. He doesn’t understand that this might be a good time to START.

Additionally, the two photographers are city people who don’t have the training/understanding to know 1) NOT to drag a knife toward the body and 2) that the smallest scent of blood will draw predators. BIG ONES.

These men are used to the “civilized world.”  When thrust into the wild, they make a critical error. They fail to properly appreciate that their position at the top of the food chain has drastically shifted.

Only ONE member of our stranded coterie gets that they’ve suddenly gone from ordering OFF menus to being ON the menu #DailySpecial #MarketPrice #JokesInPoorTaste…

Where was I? Oh, yes…

Bad Decisions Depend on Circumstances

Sometimes characters will make bad decisions simply because this is a completely new world or a set of circumstances they’ve never faced, thus have no way to fully appreciate. The “bad” decision was not a “bad decision” before the adventure.

A good example? Merry and Pippin in The Lord of the Rings. In the Shire, people talk and are sociable. These naive characters haven’t yet felt the consequences of this new and dangerous world.

To them? Chatting away and freely sharing information at The Prancing Pony is NOT a bad decision in their minds. Neither is frying bacon on top of a mountain.

They’ve always lived a life that if they were in a pub? They drank and made friends. If they wanted bacon? They just made bacon. They’ve never had to think beyond their mood or stomachs. The Hobbits don’t have the experiential base to grasp that fire is a “Come and Kill Me” beacon.

Bad Decisions & The Wound

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

We’ve talked about The Wound in other posts. In Thelma & Louise what is the wound? A lifetime of male oppression. In Thelma’s case, her husband controls every aspect of her life.

Thus, when she finally does get on her own, she has poor judgement and is naive and that’s how she nearly ends up raped in a honky-tonk parking lot.

Louise has been a victim (shamed and alone) and doesn’t trust men or the law. Thus, her baggage is what leads her to shoot Thelma’s attacker, but then also dovetails into the really, really bad decision to run.

But if we look at all these examples from an analytical distance, these characters are just DUMB. But why aren’t they TDTL? Context. Because of plot we (the audience) are not staring down at them like specimens through a microscope. We empathize with “bad” decisions. Why? Because there’s context (their world).

Making “Stupid” Forgivable

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

Great writing is a sort of alchemy that transforms the raw material of “stupid” into the literary gold we recognize as “damaged,” “broken,” and/or “naive”—which we have ALL been at one time or another.

This hits us in the feels. We relate, connect, and BOND with the characters because we’ve been there, done that, and have the scars to prove it.

In The Edge, “bad” decisions are forgivable because most of us are not wilderness experts. Readers can empathize with maybe doing something seriously stupid if stranded in a similar fashion.

In The Lord of the Rings we, the audience, have “been” to the Shire—and know what world created the childlike Merry and Pippin. Thus, we appreciate these characters are grossly out of their depth and give them a pass.

In Thelma & Louise we can understand how damaged people make poor decisions because, unless we’ve been living under a rock, we’ve made similar choices, and suffered consequences created from fear not reason.

What this means is that, while ALL of these characters made really wrong decisions, they are necessary and pardonable decisions that serve to drive the character arc and thus the plot’s momentum.

That is the final note on characters making bad decisions.

Plot Puppets

Kristen Lamb, writing tips, creating dimensional characters, fiction, flawed characters, too dumb to live, writing, the wound, the flaw, plotting, characters and plot, how to sell more books

Do we have a character making a mistake, withholding vital information, acting irrationally because it is coming from a deeper place of flaws, circumstance or wounds?

Or, do we have a character playing marionette? Characters are making a mistakes because we NEED them to. The tension has fizzled, so let’s just let them do something epically stupid (and random)?

Audiences can tell the difference between mistakes that are organic and flow from deeper emotional waters versus something contrived. And we can ALL be guilty of forcing characters to make bad choices simply because we sense tension is missing. Even I have to go back and ask the tough question…WHY is this character doing this?

What are your thoughts? I love hearing from you!

What are your thoughts regarding characters making poor decisions? What are some of your favorite examples? Ever quit a book, movie, or show because you wanted everyone to DIE? What are some great examples of characters who you should hate, but you forgive? Why? Can you think of what activated empathy instead of disdain?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this.

FYI: I’m AM loading new classes. They’ll be up next post. I know I said that last time, but whatever. I lied 😛 .

What are some classes y’all need? Topics you’d like me to talk about here on the blog. I dig suggestions!

BTW: October’s winner for the comment contest is Bjørn Larssen!

Please email your 5000 word WORD document to kristen at wana intl dot com. One-inch margins, double-spaced, Times New Roman font, please. Or you are also welcome to choose to send me a query or synopsis instead. Query shouldn’t exceed 500 words and synopsis 2,500 MAX. Congratulations!

What do you WIN? For the month of NOVEMBER, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

 

Perfect is the crystal meth of the soul. We know perfect is bad for us, that we should avoid it because it is impossible to attain. Yet, when we fail to remain vigilant, perfect’s promising high lures us in. Perfect whispers in our ear that we’re in total control and can stop any time we like. But that’s the lie, the hook. Oh, and once those hooks sink deep, the only way free from perfect is to bleed.

I know it seems like I’m being a tad dramatic, but anyone who dares to pursue anything remarkable must know the enemy and this one is a doozy. Why? Because this is the perfect enemy.

Why is perfect so deadly, especially for writers? Oh SO many angles, and we’ll explore those later.

A Perfect Mess

Kristen Lamb, perfect, writing, how to write fiction, writing tips, how to write dimensional characters, how to sell more books, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, creating dramatic tension,

We’ve been talking a lot about the log-line lately and how we can use this one sentence to test a story idea before we’re 30,000 words deep in an unfixable mess.

Conversely, if we’re already tangled in a story we can’t wrangle under control, the log-line can pinpoint what specifically is going awry.

If the story is grand, but we failed to make the stakes high enough, then we can quickly and easily fix THAT. Instead of wasting time adding in more subplots or more detailed description, we know the MC needs to have more skin in the game.

The log-line also saves a lot of time rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. If we’re missing a core story problem then we don’t have a novel, we have 50,000 or 80,000 or 100,000 words. Pretty big difference.

For those who’ve not yet read the post, the log-line formula is simple:

An Intriguing MC + Core Story Problem (Antagonist) + Active Goal + Stakes + Ticking Clock = Story

Perfect Characters

Kristen Lamb, perfect, writing, how to write fiction, writing tips, how to write dimensional characters, how to sell more books, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, creating dramatic tension,

One of the single largest problems I encounter is that the MC is way too perfect. This is an easy mistake to make, especially for the newer writers.

When we’re first starting out, we lack confidence. We lack confidence because—despite what the world may believe—writing a GOOD novel is ridiculously difficult. There is a learning curve and writers need talent, training and time.

Many emerging authors are far more eager to give their MC a black belt in Judo than a black eye from a dirtbag spouse or lover. Characters have dream jobs, dream lives, and are fully self-actualized. Thus, all that remains is the oily residue known as whining. I want to get one thing straight before we go any further.

Fiction is about one thing and one thing only—PROBLEMS.

In order for an MC to be interesting, he or she must have some flaws. Juicy, interesting ones. That’s why I put the Intriguing MC as the first ingredient in our recipe for a spicy story. I will riff off a common enough example to demonstrate my point:

An immortal god with superpowers must understand his past in order to rescue the universe.

Even if we fixed all the other glaring problems with this log-line, can you spot IMMEDIATELY why this story is doomed?

If our MC is immortal, he isn’t ever risking his life. He can’t die. Also, he has superpowers so he’s already better than well-equipped to tackle even big problems. Can any of you intimately and personally relate to an immortal god with superpowers?

This all adds up to a steaming pile of WHO CARES?

Perfect Description

Kristen Lamb, perfect, writing, how to write fiction, writing tips, how to write dimensional characters, how to sell more books, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, creating dramatic tension,

Since perfect characters come out of the brain bubble-wrap fully self-actualized, ideally prepared to take on any problem without breaking a sweat or a nail, this doesn’t leave much to work with. Perfect people are boring, and so is delving into their psyche.

Unlike seriously damaged characters—who have psychological warehouses crammed with skeletons and baggage—the PMC’s (Perfect MC’s) psyche is a spacious, orderly California Closet stocked solely with cruelty-free items.

FYI: This is bad news for a great story.

When we make characters fully evolved from the get-go, this defeats the entire purpose of story. Story is the crucible that will reveal the MC’s flaws, fire out his/her impurities and eventually forge the self-actualized hero.

If we’re starting our story with a California Closet, we really don’t have anywhere to go…unless….

We describe everything IN the California Closet, which obviously will be perfect *flips hair*.

It will also, by default, be extremely superficial because we don’t have anything else to work with. This is how we have so many MCs with emerald eyes (bet no one ever thought of THAT description) and flaming red hair (oh, another one I’ve never seen) or porcelain skin (*stabs self repeatedly*).

***Before anyone gets their knickers in a twist, I did this, too.

Give yourself permission to be NEW. This said, if we can walk into a fast food place and any random person off the street can come up with the same descriptions we did? THAT is a problem.

While descriptions of the PMC might fall flat, there’s “good” news. Since there’s no actual core story problem, we have plenty of room left over to gloriously describe…everything else.

This might be all right except description alone is not story. Many of us will sense this on some level, sense our reptile brains are nagging us that something NEEDS to happen after the MC goes shopping/has a meal/gets dressed.

I swear there is a drop-down menu somewhere in the zeitgeist.

Click to Insert: a) PMC gets party invitation, thus desperate need for new outfit and makeover b) Unexpected news that PMC is hosting a ball and requires new gown(s) c) Prophecy that war is looming and need to choose armor.

Perfect Pitfalls

Kristen Lamb, perfect, writing, how to write fiction, writing tips, how to write dimensional characters, how to sell more books, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, creating dramatic tension,

Perfect characters lend themselves to page after page of description and a lot of nothing happening. Why? Because nothing CAN happen. Perfect has the hooks in and soon, short of alien abduction, we’re putting anything in the WIP just to say we’ve written SOMETHING.

There’s a reason this is happening…

If someone is rude, the PMC will handle with utmost diplomacy. Should a problem arise, our PMC will find the perfect spell instantly. And, since he or she is ridiculously powerful, talented, intelligent, the PMC can and will master whatever is necessary within a few pages.

But reptile brain is still there telling us we need to create PROBLEMS. Reptile brain has seen every season of Jerry Springer, worships Maury Povich, and believes that Dr. Phil is a total party pooper. Reptile brain is a huge fan of family holidays and always spoiling for drama.

Reptile brain, of course is right. Something DOES need to happen but, since we began with a perfect character, he or she can’t ever make bad decisions, which leaves generally two options.

Option One

The first option is the PMC has a lot of internal navel-gazing and angst which doesn’t make the PMC flawed, it only makes them unlikable and ungrateful. No one likes a whiner. And no one is going to feel sorry for a rich socialite who jets around the world and has looks, brains, and everyone’s unmitigated adoration waxing rhapsodic about how lonely she is.

*gagging sounds*

Our PMC often will also be more sensitive than a pre-menopausal mom caught in Christmas traffic with a mini-van full of hungry teenagers. The PMC completely overreacts to, well, pretty much everything.

And how we love THOSE people in life.

Or not.

Option Two

The second option is the PMC makes mistakes that render our PMC TDTL (Too Dumb to Live).

If I had a dollar for every perfect princess gifted with unrealized magical powers, the sole protector of her kingdom, the sole guardian of her people from certain doom…who for some seriously bizarre reason decides to go for a late night horseback ride.

Alone.

In the dark.

When she KNOWS her kingdom is on the verge of disaster, and that if anything BAD should happen to her, it’s game over for the kingdom.

Alas, despite fully understanding her hefty responsibility, she goes for a midnight ride. No guards or escort so she can do more…thinking. And, of course, she dismounts her favorite steed for a water break where she can conveniently gaze upon her spun gold/flaming red/black as night hair in her reflection.

All is magical and surreal (describe this part A LOT) until…

DUN DUN DUN!

She glances up and sees WHO?

*Refer To Dropdown Menu*

Our PMC is unarmed, unguarded and OF COURSE this would be the one time the a) evil wizard b) power-thirsty warlord c) demented rival ruler d) Other Bad Man So Long as He’s SUPER HOT would arrive.

OMG! I never saw that comi—yeah, saw that from a mile.

Why So Perfect?

Kristen Lamb, perfect, writing, how to write fiction, writing tips, how to write dimensional characters, how to sell more books, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, creating dramatic tension,

As a reminder, I DID THIS TOO. I kid you not, in my first “novel,” I spent no less than six pages describing a flower market *face palm*. Again, give yourselves permission to be NEW. It’s wonderful to be new. It means you stepped out to do something grand. Just because we begin as amateurs, however, doesn’t mean we want to remain amateurs. Right?

Which is why I’m here to help shorten your learning curve 😉 .

Why many (newbie) stories fizzle flat has less to do with talent and more to do with insecurity and fear.

We’re prone to casting perfect characters because we’re not yet comfortable with the most valuable creative currency. CONFLICT.

When it comes to stories, handing out conflict is like tossing countless crisp hundred dollar bills into the air for everyone at the party #MakinItRain.

This is why authors who dole out the best (and the most) conflict have the largest entourage (Refer to George R.R. Martin, Tana French, Nora Roberts, etc.).

Is it okay to describe our characters and setting? Of course! That’s a ton of fun.

Is it okay to have hot MCs with superpowers? Sure it is! Ever heard of DC or Marvel? Certain genres even call for these over-the-top and larger-than-life characters.

All of this works…so long as the characters are imperfect.

Imperfect Makes Perfect (for Stories)

Kristen Lamb, perfect, writing, how to write fiction, writing tips, how to write dimensional characters, how to sell more books, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, creating dramatic tension,

In order to be captivating, our MC needs to have baggage (more than carry-on, please). Issue them plenty of inner demons, a graveyard of skeletons in the closet, and decent-to-large helpings of weaknesses, addictions, and/or limitations.

Even the great comic book heroes are seriously messed up.

Batman is emotionally unavailable, filled with repressed anger, driven by false guilt, false shame and is prone to depression and masochism. He’s the great self-appointed martyr who believes he must sacrifice everything—love, family, Netflix—for the thankless Gotham City…even though no one ever asked him to.

***Hmmm wait a sec. HOLY CRAP! Batman is my NANA?

Feel free to give your MC some fantastical power…so long as there’s a cost (a BIG one preferably).

For example:

In the HBO series Carnivale, the Oklahoma farm boy Ben Hawkins has the ability to heal, but there’s a catch.

When Ben gives life he must also take life. The energy to heal comes from somewhere, and never from a source he can predict. Someone or something else must pay the price for Ben’s “gift.” In essence, Ben is stealing a life he has no real right to give away. Talk about some inner conflict and outer drama.

Do Some Damage!

And now that we’ve explored all this, we can return to our original “log-line” and fix at least PART of what is wrong aside from a crap-ton of redundancies:

An immortal god with superpowers must understand his past in order to rescue the known universe.

How about…?

When an egomaniacal god recklessly breaks an old and tremulous truce, thus igniting a needless war, he is stripped of his powers and banished to the mortal realm on Earth where…. (Refer to Thor).

See how it was perfectly fine to cast an immortal god with superpowers? It works, so long as we (Author God) take them away 😉 .

Weak is Strong

Kristen Lamb, perfect, writing, how to write fiction, writing tips, how to write dimensional characters, how to sell more books, NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month, creating dramatic tension,

In the beginning, I mentioned the allure of perfect. It’s natural to be afraid of giving characters flaws because we still need training, practice and confidence. Perfect attracts us because it’s easy to write.

It doesn’t take tremendous skill to write a 2,000 word “scene” where the MC shops for a new designer dress and giggles with her best girlfriends. Anyone semi-literate with half an imagination can write this sort of a “scene” where the only problems might be typos or grammar mistakes.

On the other hand, it takes far more skill to write a scene where the MC shops for a new dress and giggles with her best girlfriends…but it’s all a ruse. She’s living in a house of cards about to blow away.

On the surface she’s normal. Inside? She’s on the edge of a nervous breakdown. She doesn’t WANT to be at Neiman Marcus, but she has to keep up appearances (WHY?). The MC is terrified (WHY?) because she lost her sweet high-paying job a month ago and her severance pay has run out (WHY IS SHE KEEPING THIS A SECRET?).

She’s sweating bullets hoping her credit card isn’t declined because if it is, she will be nothing and no one. She will cease to be the only person she knows how to be—The Gal Who Has Everything.

This is a taller order. Our MC has to maintain the facade, but the “friends” will sense something is off. She’s edgy, jumpy and feels ill about lying. Why is she lying? What does this say about HER? None of her “friends” are aware of her dire situation, so what does that say about THEM?

Notice how the first “scene” is information dump. There are no QUESTIONS to keep us (readers) turning pages. The second example, however, is bursting with tension.

And we didn’t even need to travel to her childhood to find it 😉 .

In the End

Writing fabulous books readers love takes skill. This is a tough gig, albeit a fun one. Regardless of genre, messes make magic. We want characters we can relate to, and don’t know about y’all, but I am far from perfect. Questions hook readers because we don’t like loose ends. We’re a nosey species that longs to know “Why?” and “What happened?” and if whatever happened can be resolved.

Pretty prose doesn’t make us turn pages, PROBLEMS do. So go make a mess, so your MC can grow up and clean the mess up. Your readers will thank you.

What Are Your Thoughts?

I love hearing from you! Questions? Do you feel liberated to go mess up some lives now? It’s okay. Your MCs can fix them by the end (which is kind of the point, LOL).

What do you WIN? For the month of OCTOBER, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

Upcoming Classes for OCTOBER!

SPOOKTOBER!

paranormal, ghosts, writing, angels, demons

PARANORMAL: GETTING REAL WITH GHOSTS, ANGELS, AND DEMONS

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Friday, October 12, 2018. 7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE!

 

Ever get the feeling that a paranormal romance WIP is turning out more reality ghost-hunting television than Demi Moore pottery party?

How about when a demon ends up sounding more like a goth teenager than an all-powerful agent of everlasting darkness? Or, when angels get confused as to whether they are supposed to be Nicholas Cage in ‘National Treasure’ or ‘City of Angels’?

Let’s not forget the time when asking friends and fellow writers for advice turned into a 172-comment trolltastic thread debating minutiae of scripture and ended with all our ‘Team Long Island Medium’ friends blocking our ‘Team John Edward’ friends.

All of this comes from a fundamental paradox in writing about the paranormal:

We are trying to define and describe the unexplained and unexplainable for the reader.

Well, get your EMF ghost meters and EVP recorders ready, because in this class, we’re going to turn off the lights and turn on the night vision cams…

This class will cover:

  • Ghostbusters: five questions every writer needs to answer when writing about the living-impaired;
  • Chills, chills, chills: writing the spooky stuff so readers feel like they’re really there;
  • Flirting with danger: walking the fine line between the mysterious angelic stranger and creepy stalker demon (hint – one of them stalks your Facebook);
  • The demon is in the details: from scripture to spirit boxes, how to get your ‘facts’ right, avoid trolls, and find that unique angle that will make your story stand out.

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.


PARANORMAL, URBAN FANTASY, GHOSTS, VAMPIRES, WRITING

URBAN FANTASY: SALT CIRCLE NOT INCLUDED

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Friday, October 19, 2018. 7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE!

 

Be honest. How many voodoo dolls have you mutilated in your quest to become the next Laurell K. Hamilton or Sherrilyn Kenyon?

  • 0-9: You’re probably too virtuous to ever get published.
  • 10-19: Equivalent of the New Year’s resolution of voodoo…fizzles in week 2.
  • 20-29: You’ve won NaNoWriMo once or twice and wear lucky writing socks.
  • 30+: Now, we’re talking.

In all seriousness, urban fantasy has emerged as one of the strongest and most competitive categories in publishing, building on the momentum of legends like Anne Rice and expanding to embrace all kinds of sub-genres such as YA, satire, and romance.

But for all its badass convention-breaking, urban fantasy also a genre boobytrapped with the worst pitfalls of all the genres it borrows from.

If we’re not overdoing the Mickey Spillane-esque hard-boiled grit, we’re confusing which supernatural creature has which power. Or, we’re creating characters that are so wrapped up in their love lives with <insert hot supernatural guys here>, they almost miss the climactic battle between good and evil happening a couple blocks over.

Fear not! Strap on your vampire-hunting gear, grab your wolfsbane gris-gris, and don’t forget to bring your sarcastic sidekick to this class where I will help you navigate the mean streets and treacherous back alleys of urban fantasy!

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.


VAMPIRES, WEREWOLVES, PARANORMAL, GHOSTS, WRITING

BLOODY BEASTS: VAMPIRES, WEREWOLVES, AND OTHER BEASTIE BESTIES

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Friday, October 26, 2018. 7:00 p.m. – 9:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE!

 

Every few years, publishing declares, “Vampires are dead!” and technically, this is correct. They are undead. You can’t keep a good vampire down. Or a good werewolf. (Down, boy!)

Like a dog with a bone, readers keep coming back to stories about vampires, werewolves, and other creatures because there is something irresistibly compelling about the danger of the ‘other’ that makes us question what it means to be human. Plus, vampires and werewolves can be totally hot, amiright?

However, trite tropes and careless creature creation can raise a reader’s hackles faster than a bad batch of AB negative. Okay, okay, I’ll stop with the awful mixed metaphors and puns. Still, a story that doesn’t offer anything new or compelling will suck the life out of a reader’s interest faster than day-old vampire…yeah, I know…bad joke…sorrynotsorry!

This is going to be a super fun class with a lot of juicy stuff to sink your teeth into…can’t-stop-won’t-stop….

This class will cover:

  • Only human: how to walk the fine line between immortal angst and everyday relatability and create characters so cold, they burn, baby!
  • Sparkle, shmarkle: picking through the mystery, history, and science of vampirism to create your own believable and betwitching bloodsuckers;
  • That time of the month: from caricature to cryptozoology, what writers get right…and wrong…about werewolves and wolf shifters;
  • Mortal problems: Do vampires pay taxes? If a hunter shoots a werewolf, is it involuntary manslaughter? ignoring these details can deal a fatal blow to a reader’s suspension of disbelief.

A recording of this class is also included with purchase.


THE CREATURE FEATURE CLASS BUNDLE

GHOSTS, PARANORMAL, VAMPIRES, WEREWOLVES, WRITING

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $110.00 USD (It’s LITERALLY one class FREE!)
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: (see below)

REGISTER HERE!

Recordings of all three classes is also included with purchase.

About the Instructor:

Cait Reynolds is a USA Today Bestselling Author and lives in Boston with her husband and neurotic dog. She discovered her passion for writing early and has bugged her family and friends with it ever since. She likes history, science, Jack Daniels, jewelry, pasta, and solitude. Not all at the same time. When she isn’t enjoying the rooftop deck that brings her closer to the stars, she writes.

Death characters

I think there’s one thing we can all agree about: it’s pretty awful that life doesn’t have a pause button when it comes to things like death and grief.

One of the things that Kristen always says (I call them Lamb’s Laws) is that real writers don’t wait for all the stars to align, perfect barometric pressure, and a good hair day in order to ‘feel the muse’ and write. That means that I’ve written parts of this blog on a plane from Boston to Indianapolis to grieve for a man who was like a father to me. I’ve written other parts in between condolence visits, remembrance services, and private moments of comforting.

Dr. Shahid Athar was a good man—a very good man, one of the few who truly lived the spirit of compassion, love, and charity that is central to all religions. He was an internationally-renowned doctor who would quietly slip away to volunteer his services in shelters. He was both deeply observant and an open-minded philosopher scholar who sought to bring faiths and communities together. He also had a wicked, sly sense of humor—I remember how he used to make my dad laugh until he cried, or the way I’d do a double-take when I realized he had just deadpanned a gentle burn on me. Oh, and his Fourth of July tandoori chicken barbecues for a hundred people were some of my best childhood memories.

Death characters
Reverend Jerry Zehr, Dr. Shahid Athar, Rabbi Dennis Sasso – Carmel Interfaith Alliance

I got the news on Saturday afternoon that he was slipping away. I reacted as I usually do in a crisis: I made a to-do list. Flights, hotel, car, packing, last-minute work stuff…it was only late that night when I was done that I allowed myself twenty minutes to drink half-a-glass of whiskey and cry. Then my timer went off, and I blew my nose, drank some water, and went to bed.

Yeah, I’ve got a timeshare by a river in Egypt.

Vulnerable Author, Visceral Prose

Let’s be clear. I know very well that I am putting off dealing with all of this. I give it about two weeks before I randomly burst into tears in the middle of CVS on a Tuesday. I get it. But, I also know that every time I grieve, I learn something different about grief itself. And like all good writers with vaguely sociopathic and dissociative tendencies, part of my brain is busy observing and cataloguing all this and figuring out how to use it to gut readers with my words.

The thing is, though, in order to do that, I will have to do the thing I hate most in the world (aside from picking up the dry-cleaning—don’t ask, I don’t understand it either). I will have to allow myself to feel and express emotion.

While there are certain limits to the ‘write-what-you-know’ philosophy like committing serial murder to get the ‘feel’ for it, imbuing characters with genuine reactions requires us to draw on a very personal well of feelings and life experiences.

If we want a truly visceral reaction from our readers, we have to be truly vulnerable. The honesty of deep emotion is what brings us all together, whether we like it or not. *side-eye at Sarah McLaughlin*

Death characters

Echoes of the Present

One of the unexpected things I’ve experienced with this death is what I’m going to call ‘reverb.’

It’s the unexpected way a death can echo other deaths. Losing a man who was like a father to me is not exactly like losing my father. But, there are enough similarities that the great bell of memory rings in the space in my chest, its dark resonance vibrating deep in my bones.

It’s not déjà vu because in a sense, it has happened before. The call. The flight. The last-minute arrangements. The feeling of racing against time to get there for a goodbye. The sense that life turned another corner while you weren’t looking, and there’s no going back.

But, it’s not actually my father. It’s another daughter who has lost her anchor. It’s another son who suddenly discovers just how much business death involves. It’s another mother we are reminded is also a wife as she grieves for a marriage that at its heart began and ended with two people in love. It’s another home where we keep looking up expecting to see a father stroll into the room with a joke and smile for everyone.

When a character is confronted by death, it’s worth taking a moment to ask ourselves who is it that they have actually lost, beyond the labels of friend and family. Was that person a trusted confidant? An enemy who should have been a friend? Even a complete stranger’s death can go beyond the label when we realize that person had a full life of experiences that we would never know.

A person only truly dies once, but memory is thousand mirrors that reflect it back to us a thousand times a day.

Living Death

Death is experienced in its entirety by the living.

I know, but bear with me. Death spans the dying process and the moment of stoppage, but also the moments, minutes, days, and weeks after. It is the living who feel the aftermath.

There is a physicality to death—even a peaceful one—that shocks us and rocks reality down to its foundations. It splits time into before and after, and yet if we think about the paradox of infinitely divisible time, the moment of death exists for its own little eternity. It’s counted in beats per minute, oxygen levels, complex chemical reactions, and the half-life of cellular decay. It’s a creeping cold and a moment of absolute stillness that nothing but death can create.

Death characters

I was at my father’s side when he drew his last breath. We had turned off the monitors. There was no point in taunting us with its cruelly absolute measurements. Instead, I watched the fluttering pulse in my father’s neck. It was so strange to see that little vein gently jumping beneath his skin. Even stranger still was how it faded and stopped. His expression changed, from the soft half-smile of sedation to a more solemn and severe mien as the muscles in his face went slack without the spark of a living brain and the impetus of a manifested will.

When characters behold death, what is it they actually see? Do they smell the crisp, bitter antiseptic cleaner of a hospital room? Do they hear an annoying sniffle of someone who just won’t blow their nose? Do they feel the chilly weight of a hand that will never hold them back?

Death is the end of a single story, but death lives on as a grim rule of punctuation for those whose survive.

There is no Cure for the Ugly Crying Hangover

One of the reasons I hate crying is because I always end up with gritty eyes, a snot-induced sinus headache, and an overall sense of being slightly puffy.

It’s not that I don’t cry. I can and do. *once more, throws shade at Sarah McLaughlin*

Death characters

I know people who don’t really ugly cry. They won’t exactly win any beauty contests, but they don’t do the hiccupping-while-dripping-snot-that-ends-up-choking-you thing that makes people hesitate a fraction of a second before going in for the hug.

I hate those people.

Death characters

Another thing I hate? When people recite to me the five stages of grieving. I want to take that linear progression and beat them with it. In reality, the five stages of grief are really most like a pinball machine.

We ricochet from anger to denial. Acceptance bounces back and forth between bargaining and depression. The first year alone after a death is a grief-stricken jackpot of shock, bad life choices, acting out, and fractured relationships.

I couldn’t wait to be done with all the ‘firsts’ – the first birthday, Fourth of July, Halloween (yeah, that holiday had me sobbing as I watched trick-or-treaters because he loved greeting them and giving out candy). I don’t remember much about the first Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s because frankly, I was either half-in-the-bag or fully in-the-bag. Not my proudest moments, but I have yet to be judged for grieving in a very imperfect but very human way.

Death characters

The same goes for characters. Sometimes, we struggle to have characters make the bad decisions that give them depth and create the conflict necessary for good stories. Death and grief give characters a way to be irrational and make bad decisions without making them unsympathetic.

Death is a Party

Go to any wake or at-home receiving time, and you will see the same tableau play out. The food might be different, the language might be strange, the gods foreign, but I will bet you two bits* (one of my father’s favorite phrases) that you will see the following cast of characters:

  • The Organizer: Kind, busy, slightly harassed, slightly put-upon-but-secretly-enjoying-the-sympathy-of-being-the-hard-working-one…in other words, the Munchausen by Proxy griever;
  • The Drama Queen: Usually centrally seated in living room, and also usually the prettiest crier in the family…willingly recites the account of how the defunct passed on over and over again for each visitor, basking in the spotlight of their sympathy;
  • The Sh!tface Drunk: Can usually be found brooding out on the back porch because he/she hates people in general and doesn’t have the words to express the depth of their sorrow…also liable to engage the Drama Queen in World War III after the guests have left;
  • The Angry One: A sober version of the Sh!tface Drunk…liable to engage the Drama Queen in World War III while the guests are still there, and also prone to snapping at the Organizer;
  • The Inappropriately Cheerfully Spiritual One: Voted most likely to inadvertently trigger the Sh!tface Drunk and the Angry One into lashing out…also shunned by the Drama Queen because optimism and acceptance totally ruin her grief game.

Death characters

I know this is pure snark, but death often brings out personality traits that usually lie dormant. And, as much as death brings families and friends together, it is also an occasion littered with the landmines of conflict, misunderstandings, and miscommunication.

And, like I said earlier, if you’re like me and have those vaguely sociopathic and dissociative tendencies to always be observing and analyzing, death’s mix of irrevocability, emotion, money, and words is a volatile, combustible substance that practically guarantees good drama.

Like Fathers, Like Daughter

My father was unwavering in his faith that I would someday be a writer. Yes, he was encouraging and supportive when I had other jobs or got promotions, but he would always say at the end, “Just remember, Caity, you were meant to be a writer.” (And just so people don’t get any ideas, only my father, my Uncle Shahid, and his family are allowed to call me Caity.)

I made a deathbed promise to my father to become that writer. I’d like to think he heard me in his sedated state. More importantly, I know he would be happy that I accomplished this goal for my own sake and my own future.

Death characters
Father and Daughter

Uncle Shahid was also an author. He published numerous books about Islam, both for the Muslim community and for the general public in his relentlessly optimistic drive to bring people of all faiths together. He believed people could be better. He believed in the power of words and communication to build bridges over the chasms of fear, ignorance and prejudice. He fearlessly tackled subjects like balancing the advances of modern medicine with the ethical concerns of contemporary Islam, healing the wounds of September 11th, and how to communicate healthy attitudes about sexuality to Muslim youth.

He wrote books of poetry and reflections on prayer. He was a newspaper guest columnist. And, let’s not forget, he wrote scientific and medical research papers for his work as an endocrinologist.

He did all of that while speaking English as a fourth language after Urdu, Arabic, and Hindi. He could also tell jokes in all four languages. As I sit in his study writing this, I am looking at the wall-to-wall bookshelves filled to overflowing with books on everything from the history of medicine, to classic literature, to Native American art. I will miss his passion for the written word.

Death characters
Nine languages, four religions, four immigrants, two citizens born, three life-threatening chronic illnesses, countless heated discussions about cooking…and a lifetime of memories with my family.

Shahid Athar was the father who stood by me as my dad drew his final breaths, and who—from memory—began to recite one of the poems both he and my dad loved:

UNDER the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie:
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you ‘grave for me:
Here he lies where he long’d to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

– Robert Louis Stevenson

I’d like to think that they are laughing together somewhere, arguing about some outrageously academic, esoteric, political, religious, literary, technological topic…or maybe they are just comparing notes on the daughter who is writing this and missing them.

 

Left-Right: my father Dr. K.C. Khemka, my other father Dr. Shahid Athar. Friends and brothers once more together.

 

Whether it’s grief, love, anger, commitment, or loss, what emotion that scares you the most to put down paper? I’d love to hear your thoughts.


Upcoming Classes for August & September


Brand Boss: When Your Name Alone Can Sell

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: General Admission $55.00 USD/ GOLD Level $175
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Thursday, September 13th, 2018. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 

 


Building Planet X: Out-of-This-World-Building for Speculative Fiction

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 8th, 2018. 10:00 a.m.—12:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 


Populating Planet X: Creating Realistic, Relatable Characters in Speculative Fiction

Instructors: Cait Reynolds & Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 8th, 2018. 1:00—3:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 


Beyond Planet X: Mastering Speculative Fiction

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 8th, 2018. 4:00—6:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 

 


The XXX Files: The Planet X Speculative Fiction 3-Class Bundle

Instructors: Cait Reynolds & Kristen Lamb
Price: $110.00 USD (It’s LITERALLY one class FREE!)
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Saturday, September 8th, 2018. 10:00 a.m.—6:00 p.m. EST.

REGISTER HERE

Recordings of all three classes is also included with purchase.

 


 


Go Fish: Finding the Right Beta Readers

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Friday, August 24, 2018. 7:00-9:00 p.m.

REGISTER HERE

 

 


More Than Gore: How to Write Horror

Instructor: Kristen Lamb
Price: $40.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: THURSDAY, August 30th, 2018. 7:00-9:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

 

 

 


Keywordpalooza: Tune in, mellow out, and learn to love keywords for Amazon

Instructor: Cait Reynolds
Price: $55.00 USD
Where: W.A.N.A. Digital Classroom
When: Friday, September 7, 2018. 7:00—9:00 p.m. EST

REGISTER HERE

self-editing tips, self-editing for writers, dialogue tips, creating dimensional characters, how to write dialogue, Kristen Lamb, backstory and novels, soap opera writing, perspective

Perspective is key to creating dimensional characters that resonate with the reader. Proper perspective adds dimension that transitions a ‘plot puppet’ into what feels like a real ‘person.’

POV (point of view) offers readers a glimpse into the character’s psyche, which will drive thought, action, emotion, conflict, choices, and change. Perspective can also rid our stories of ‘Talking Head Syndrome’—dialogue that all sounds the same.

Last post, I offered 7 Tips for Self-Editing. As mentioned, good editors are not cheap, but worth their weight in gold. Do as much cleanup as possible on our own? Pros can then step in for what we missed or failed to even see.

An analogy might help. When my son was little, I hired a housekeeper to come clean once a month. Though I kept a tidy enough home, I simply didn’t have it in me to do the necessary but time-consuming tasks (cleaning blinds, vacuuming baseboards, dusting fans, etc.).

I’d always clean before the housekeepers arrived (Hubby laughing at me all the while). Yes, it might seem silly, but I could do my own dishes. I could make beds and pick up toys. If the housekeepers did what I could EASILY do on my own? This was a waste of money. I NEEDED them to help with tasks that required ladders, patience, and special tools.

Same with a manuscript.

Developmental Edit

self-editing tips, self-editing for writers, dialogue tips, creating dimensional characters, how to write dialogue, Kristen Lamb, backstory and novels, soap opera writing, perspective

So last time I pointed out that proofreading is only ONE form of edit. Sometimes, if an MS keeps getting rejected, it’s time to bring in a developmental editor. Proofreading is essential, but I can’t recall ever reading a book and saying: Wow, the author placed every comma perfectly!

Developmental editors inspect the MS for what’s going wrong with the architecture of a story. Is there a plot? If so, is it too weak, too complicated, or too confusing? Are the characters dimensional? Do the characters arc? Are there character redundancies?

Y’all get the gist.

It’s very tough, time-consuming work and today we’re going to telescope in on a very common problem (especially with emerging authors).

Writing.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it. ~Elmore Leonard

self-editing tips, self-editing for writers, dialogue tips, creating dimensional characters, how to write dialogue, Kristen Lamb, backstory and novels, soap opera writing, perspective

This is why those seven tips I gave last time can be so helpful. When we go through our WIP (work in progress) with these ‘cutting’ tools, we can strip away what screams ‘WRITING!’

You might laugh, but how often do you have a conversation and use that person’s name?

Good morning, Joe.

Well, hello, Kristen.

Joe, did you get the plans for the new design? You know, Joe, we are on a major deadline.

Y’all would be shocked how much of this kind of dialogue I see in samples. People in LIFE don’t talk like this. If they do?

That’s seriously weird.

Soap Opera Writing

self-editing tips, self-editing for writers, dialogue tips, creating dimensional characters, how to write dialogue, Kristen Lamb, backstory and novels, soap opera writing, perspective

This is what I like to call ‘soap opera writing.’ Soap operas were originally written for radio, then eventually shifted to television.

The audience?

Homemakers who might be busy ironing or scrubbing a floor or changing diapers. This is actually HOW these stories earned the name SOAP opera. Back in the day, the soap companies did most of the advertising during these shows.

Anyway…

In soaps, characters constantly call each other by name in dialogue. They also do a lot of, ‘As you know, Bob…’ and then fill in what’s happened. Soap operas are a string of vignettes and melodrama (as opposed to dramatic tension). There is no overall plot because soap operas are not meant to end.

Ever.

The reason characters called each other by name was because women busy ironing shirts couldn’t always SEE the screen. Thus, the characters had to keep calling one another by name so the target audience could follow along.

Soap operas could (can) also dedicate entire scenes to ‘As you know, Bob’ writing.

As you know, Marlena, Bo and Hope never wanted to divorce. They still love each other. But Stephano tricked them. He helped Sami fake her pregnancy and imprisoned Lucas in a Jell-O mold that gave him amnesia….”

****This is why we can miss twenty years of Days of Our Lives and catch up in about a week.

Point of View

self-editing tips, self-editing for writers, dialogue tips, creating dimensional characters, how to write dialogue, Kristen Lamb, backstory and novels, soap opera writing, perspective

Soap operas have the luxury of using talking heads because the ‘characters’ are basically mannequins with great hair and fashion sense. They’re not meant to have a lot of depth because every ‘story problem’ is dragged out for months or years. Soaps don’t hook with a story as much as they hook with morbid curiosity, ergo the cliffhangers and unresolved conflicts.

Soaps employ what I might refer to as a ‘bystander effect.’ We hear a couple start arguing in a nice restaurant and cannot help but eavesdrop and see ‘how it ends.’

***In soaps it doesn’t end, at least not for a minimum of three years.

The reason is that soaps are after longevity, and resolution gets in the way.

Days of Our Lives has been running since 1965, so no judgement here. Perhaps one could gather a decade of material and realize a character actually does possess dimension, but it takes TEN YEARS to deliver this…one painful breadcrumb at a time.

Novelists don’t have this luxury. Though, as a note, I can tell a writer who watches a lot of soaps 😉 .

Perspective Matters

self-editing tips, self-editing for writers, dialogue tips, creating dimensional characters, how to write dialogue, Kristen Lamb, backstory and novels, soap opera writing, perspective

Back to this perspective thing. When creating a character for a novel, we need to crawl into the head of the character we’re writing or they’ll all sound the same (a lot like us). In my last post, a few commenters mentioned hating said as a tag.

Said, when used properly, should be invisible. If it’s jumping off the page, it’s because it’s being overused. Why? First, the conversation is banal filler, which is doing nothing to propel dramatic tension.

Tags are also overused when characters are flat. Lacking in depth, we (the reader) wouldn’t be able to tell one speaking character from another without a clue (the tag).

When writers do the hard work and create distinct personalities (perspectives), tags are rarely necessary because the speech patterns give away the speaker. I like to read my dialogue aloud to a critical audience and, if they can’t tell the difference (with no tags)?

I need to try harder.

Perspective and Narrative

self-editing tips, self-editing for writers, dialogue tips, creating dimensional characters, how to write dialogue, Kristen Lamb, backstory and novels, soap opera writing, perspective

The internal narrative of a POV character is what clues us into the mental state of the character, because perspective generates conflict and complexity. Perspective dictates what a character notices, how he or she feels and how that character then responds (or doesn’t).

There are innumerable combinations available so that no character is ever just like any other. Gender, ethnicity, age, background, family, faith (or lack thereof), birth order, trauma, occupation, etc. all color a character’s perception of events.

A female septuagenarian has a vastly different perspective than a modern female teenager.

Take a trip into a neighborhood:

If our MC is an architect, she’s likely to notice styles of homes, cornice work, wainscoting, termite-ridden soffits, etc. She’s also going to know that ‘thingie’ actually is CALLED a soffit.

If our MC is fireman, he’ll definitely notice that jerk parked in front of a hydrant and might even take time to go bang on a door and make the person move the car.

Perspective is important in all genres, but perhaps most important when writing for young people. Our nine-year-old boy shouldn’t sound like a Baby Boomer.

Recently, I edited a work and the (modern) teenage girl was ‘punching in her friend’s phone number.’ Not in an age of smart phones she isn’t 😉 .

Just for FUN: An Exercise

self-editing tips, self-editing for writers, dialogue tips, creating dimensional characters, how to write dialogue, Kristen Lamb, backstory and novels, soap opera writing, perspective

I’ve used this little exercise for ages in classes, but this is a great way to train POV (point of view) and hone our empathy skills. Your challenge:

Four POVs. A family of four is taking a road trip. They’ve been saving over a year to take this vacation, but something goes very wrong (road construction, get lost, car breaks down, demons possess the engine, warp drive on their personal star-van fails). Use your imagination.

In the vehicle (wagon, time-machine, Honda Accord, 1973 hot pink Cadillac), we have Mom, Dad, a teen, and a grandparent. Now, tell the story from ALL FOUR perspectives.

Is grandpa a retired mobster? Does Mom have a pain pill addiction? Is the teenager hiding she’s a vampire? Does Dad have PTSD from the interstellar wars?

What went wrong? Who’s fault is it? What does each character prioritize? How do they conflict? What does each character believe the solution should be? How do they come to a resolution of the problem?

ENJOY!

Pick the one that is the toughest for you to write and, if you create something you’re particularly pleased with? Put in the comments. I’d love to see your creativity! Bonus point for the contest below.

I love hearing from you!

And am not above bribery!

What do you WIN? For the month of April, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

NOW OFFERING…

The first five pages are the most essential part of the novel, your single most powerful selling tool. It’s how you will hook agents, editors and readers. This class will cover the most common blunders and also teach you how to hook hard and hook early. This class is two hours long, 90 minutes of instruction and 30 minutes for Q&A.

***A free recording is included with purchase.

General Admission is $40 and there are some SUPER COOL upgrades! Get your spot HERE.

 

MORE CLASSES!

Have to write a query letter or synopsis? Conference season is coming! 

Pitch Perfect: Crafting a Query & Synopsis Agents Will Love. Class is May 3rd 7-9 EST and $45 for over two hours training y’all how to do the toughest parts of this job.

Ready for Book Beast Mode? I Live to Serve…Up Some TRAINING!

For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend:

ON DEMAND Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY. 

Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like 😀 .

The Art of Character is also now available for ON DEMAND.

And if you’re ready for BOOK BEAST MODE and like saving some cash, you can get BOTH Plot Boss and Art of Character in the…

Story Boss Bundle (ON DEMAND).

Almost FIVE HOURS with me, in your home…lecturing you. It’ll be FUN! 

I also hope you’ll pick up a copy of my debut novel The Devil’s Dance.

The Devil's Dance, The Devil's Dance Kristen Lamb, Author Kristen Lamb, Kristen Lamb novel, Kristen Lamb mystery-thriller, Romi Lachlan

writing tips, novel structure, narrative structure, Aristotle's Poetics, David Mamet MasterClass, Kristen Lamb, writing fiction, dramatic writing, plot and characters
Image courtesy of Kevin Wood via Flickr Creative Commons

I put in a lot of work and study when it comes to honing my writing skills. This means I’m always searching for ways to become a stronger author and craft teacher. Want to get better at anything? Look to those who are the best at what they do and pay close attention.

This said, wanting to deepen my understanding of drama, I enrolled in David Mamet’s on-line course for Dramatic Writing (which has been superlative). In one of the lessons, Mamet said something that challenged my thinking regarding characters.

I won’t directly relay what his assertion was because it’s very much a class worth taking, and I’d hate to spoil it for anyone. Regardless, his commentary regarding character creation made me extremely uncomfortable.

At first, I balked. Big time. Challenging ideas do that.

I thought, Yes, well Mamet’s referring to stage and screen. With written fiction we have narrative. Actors don’t possess this.

Which IS true, yet Mamet’s unconventional opinion stopped me long enough to give his angle some serious consideration. Did his assessment relate to our sort of fiction?

Craft Crossover? 

Written form stories hold some major advantages, the largest of those being internal narration. The audience knows what’s going on in the head of the character (or can believe they know).

On stage or screen, it’s up to the actors’ abilities to accurately portray the internal, which is a tough order. It’s also why if a book is made into a movie, watch the movie first.

Otherwise…

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This largely has nothing to do with the quality (or lack thereof) regarding the play/film. Internal narrative allows for a far more intimate psychic distance that is ONLY possible in the written form.

The medium is different and thus should be judged differently…though we still gripe the book was WAY better.

Stage and film rely on the screenplay which is very BASIC. It’s all dialogue and up to the director’s vision and the actors’ talent. Character creation for stage and screen cannot help but differ from written form, yet by how much? What can we learn from our sister mediums?

****Other than Sister Mediums is a way better reality show concept than Sister Wives? #SquirrelMoment

Character Creation

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Image courtesy of Kevin Wood via Flickr Creative Commons

I thought back over works I’d edited, earlier stories of my own and had a moment of revelation. Why were some characters so flat? As interesting as some form-molded widget popped off on an assembly line?

Conversely, what made other characters almost come ALIVE?

What was the X-factor?

Now that I’ve noodled this, I’ve revised some of my thinking. Multi-dimensional characters are not something writers can directly create. Rather, these lifelike people are forged from the crucible of story.

Dramatic writing uses a core problem (fire). The core problem generates escalating problems (the hammer). The trials (increasing heat/hammering) reveal, refine, define, and ultimately transform the narrative actors into characters.

Story alone holds the power to bestow resonance.

Fill-In-The-Blank People

Sure, we can do all the activities of filling out a character profile. But, these character sheets alone are about as telling as a ‘fill-in-the fields-profile’ on a dating site. Height, weight, build, nationality, attractiveness, education level, how many kids, previously married, hobbies, etc.

Dating profiles also provide blank spaces for additional ‘deep, character-revealing statements’ such as: I’m not a game-player, love Mexican food, and my favorite activities are crossfit and hiking.

FYI: ALL of that is likely a lie (other than enjoying Mexican food). Anyone who starts with I am not a game-player is almost guaranteed to be a game-player. It’s Shakespeare’s Rules of Romance. Or, as I call it, ‘The Lady/Dude Doth Protest Too Much’ litmus.

Anyway…

No School Like Old School

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….or not.

Do I create character profiles? Sure. I also put a lot of thought and research into what ‘people’ I want to cast in a given story. It’s a great activity, but be careful. We can’t camp there. Activity and productivity are not synonymous.

Ultimately, fictional characters reflect the real human experience in a distilled and intensified form. This, however, doesn’t give an automatic pass on authenticity.

Aristotle might be Old School, but his observations regarding drama resonate even into the 21st century. In Aristotle’s Poetics he asserts:

Since the objects of imitation are men in action, and these men must be either of a higher or a lower type (for moral character mainly answers to these divisions, goodness and badness being the distinguishing marks of moral differences), it follows that we must represent men either as better than in real life, or as worse, or as they are. ~Aristotle

This gives three schools: Polygnotus (more noble), Pauson (less noble), and Dionysius (real life).

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Even today these three schools of story thought are alive and well. Marvel’s Captain America movies proffer the larger-than-life hero, the man better than real men (Polygnotus).

Westworld and Game of Thrones provide a vast assortment of villains who are worse-than-life, an exaggeration of evil (Pauson).

Then, movies like Training Day or Glengarry Glen Ross show men as they really are…flawed. They’re not entirely noble or ignoble (Dionysis).

Granted, this is a vast simplification, but we can see novels fall into these schools as well. Genre dictates a lot of this. Harry PotterThe Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and A Man Called Ove could reasonably be placed in each category.

Talk is Cheap

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Why do I mention these ‘schools’ of story? Depending on genre, readers will have expectations when it comes to what they’ll find entertaining. As writers, our primary job is to entertain. This said, stories are for the audience. This means we need to either serve them what they enjoy, or serve them what they don’t yet know they will enjoy 😉 .

As a general ‘rule,’ readers who gravitate to stories like Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy are fundamentally different than readers who prefer stories like Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men. What readers are looking for—regarding story and characters—will be specific to the genres they gravitate to.

It’s critical to define what kind/flavor of story we want to tell, because an idea can be delivered any number of ways (parodies prove this).

Also, telling a story audiences don’t yet know they will love must work with the boundaries of preference. Take the boundaries and push them or deliver them in a new, fresh way.

J.K. Rowling didn’t completely ignore reader expectations and preferences for YA fantasy. She merely delivered her stories in a brand new way. She cast a boy (Harry Potter) as her lead protagonist.

At the time, the YA fantasy world was dominated by female protagonists. The genre’s audience expected one approach, but only because they didn’t yet realize they’d LOVE something else. An unwanted boy living under the stairs, unaware he’s a wizard destined for greatness.

Talk the Talk & Walk the Walk

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Earlier, I mentioned character backgrounds. These are a good start, but they’re only that. A start. Characters aren’t who we (the writer) say they are. Characters are composed of what they do or don’t do.

Go back to my analogy of an on-line dating profile. Someone can talk a great game on some dating site. Yet, it won’t be until that first awkward meet at a coffee shop—in person—that this profile is put to any real test.

Sure, he might say he’s a nice guy and have loads of pics of him with puppies and kids. But, how does he respond when the barista knocks a scorching hot venti Americano all over his best shirt? Does he laugh it off and try to calm the hysterical barista? Or, does he throw a fit, demand the barista be fired, and threaten to sue?

She might claim she longs for friendship and intimacy in her profile. But, at coffee, how often is she checking her phone? Her Facebook? Does she engage and listen, or does she have the attention span of a goldfish with severe ADD…who just smoked some crack?

Same in Stories

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We can tell the reader a character is a certain way, but how that character acts matters more. For instance, I did an edit not too long ago and the writer said the female protagonist was a strong alpha female. Problem was, the MC didn’t act like one. I called the writer on the lack of continuity.

This is part of what we (editors) mean when we use the phrase, ‘Show, don’t tell.’

The writer can TELL me (the reader) all she wants how this character is an alpha take-no-prisoners gal, which the writer did in the set-up. Fair enough. But three pages later, when this alleged ‘alpha female’ is essentially begging for a chance at contract? I called FOUL. If she’s an alpha personality, then she needs to act like it. Actions speak louder than words.

We can TELL readers a character is anything, yet how that character acts is all that matters.

Talk is cheap and, adding to that…

Humans Are Liars

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*hangs head* Yep. Probably.

We’re all liars. We might lie to others (to one degree or another). Mostly, though, we lie to ourselvesWow, the dryer really shrank my pants!

No judgement. Goes with being human.

We all want to believe if something horrific happened, we’d act heroically. Maybe we would. But, perhaps not. We all want to believe we’d NEVER do X (kill, run, hide), but there’s only one way to know for certain.

Trial by fire.

Problem is, what we believe about our own character (integrity or lack thereof) is all theory until we’re faced with some crisis that puts that belief to the test. Only a test can reveal our belief as truth, half-truth, or a lie (self-delusion). Crises show us what we are made of (or not).

The hero-in-his-own-mind may, when faced with an actual trial, turn out to be a complete coward. Conversely, the person who wholly believes she could never be heroic might, in reality, be the most heroic of all.

It’s the same with characters in a story.

Character Crucible

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Structure (story) acts as the crucible and how we put the story together is what steadily turns up the heat on all parties involved. Next time we’ll focus in on the components of story, the scene and the sequel. But here’s a preview and how it relates to character.

The scene is a fundamental building block of fiction. It is physical. Something tangible is happening. The scene has three parts (per Jack Bickham’s Scene & Structure, an invaluable resource which I recommend every writer buy and study).

  • Statement of the goal
  • Introduction and development of conflict
  • Failure of the character to reach his goal, a tactical disaster

Goal –> Conflict –> Disaster

The sequel is the other fundamental building block and is the emotional thread. The sequel often begins at the end of a scene when the viewpoint character has to process the unanticipated but logical disaster that happened at the end of your scene.

Emotion–> Thought–> Decision–> Action

Notice how the scene presents the problem, which then provides a way we (readers) can witness how a character acts/responds externally.

The sequel permits audience access to the internal. We can peer into the thoughts of that character. This is where we’ll witness how a character evolves/or devolves over time. For bonus points, internal narrative—in scene and the sequel—is a fantastic way to mess with readers’ heads (I.e. the unreliable narrator).

In the End

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Everyone has his or her version of the truth, but we as writers must tangibly demonstrate this. This means, when we strengthen the story, this automatically can strengthen the characters.

Everything in dramatic writing is and should be intentional. No extra screws or bits. Granted, practice will make us all better at this, but in great stories there are NO free rides. Period. No thought, setback, bit of setting, snippet of dialogue is there to simply take up space.

It ALL serves a vital/integral purpose.

And, if any character’s actions do not line up with who we (the writer) says he is? It better be intentional 😉 .

For anyone who longs to accelerate their plot skills, I recommend my On Demand Plot Boss: Writing Novels Readers Want to BUY. Two hours of intensive plot training from MOI…delivered right to your computer to watch as much as you like 😀 .

Or to make stabbing motions at my head with a pen. Die! Die! Kristen we loves you but hates you!

I also am offering The Art of Character (March 22nd 7-9 EST). Advanced material, lots of FUN! Who better to teach character THAN a character? LOL.

I’m also offering my Bullies and Baddies: Understanding the Antagonist on March 29th (7-9 EST) recording included with purchase if you can’t make it. Both are advanced-level material to take your writing to another level.

What Are Your Thoughts?

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Is the saying, ‘Show, don’t tell‘ making a bit more sense? Can you see how problems are the ONLY way to really deliver character? How actions can be used in all sorts of ways, even as a way of misleading the audience for WHAMMO twist endings?

Where do you struggle? Because we ALL do. What you want to know more about? Where you get stuck, etc.

I look forward to helping you guys become stronger at your craft. What are some of your biggest problems, hurdles or misunderstandings about plot? Where do you most commonly get stuck?

I love hearing from you!

And am not above bribery!

What do you WIN? For the month of March, for everyone who leaves a comment, I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. I will pick a winner once a month and it will be a critique of the first 20 pages of your novel, or your query letter, or your synopsis (5 pages or less).

***February’s winner is Gabriella L. Garlock. Please send your 5,000 word Word document in a doc.x file, double-spaced, 12 point Times New Roman font, one-inch margins to kristen @wana intl dot com. Congrats!

By the way, yes I also offer classes, and so does my partner-in-crime USA Today Best-Selling Author Cait Reynolds does, too. We both want y’all to write amazing books because that means more word of mouth sales, and a world with better books.

NEW CLASSES (AND SOME OLD FAVES)!

You can sign up HERE!